Saturday, June 9, 2012

Thinking about Thinking...

Started reading Gödel, Escher, Bach (a phenomenal book, btw) and as I was through with the first several pages, somehow, thoughts began connecting the dots between the underlying mathematics and a video by Sam Harris I watched a while back.

It just occurred to me how impossible it is to actually introspect, genuinely. Sam Harris in his video invites his audience to inspect their own consciousness and pay attention to every passing thought. This sort of meditation is possible to execute, but in no sense is it true to its goal.

In trying to pay attention to consciousness, it's very easy to forget that I, the self, is very much a part of it. We tend to invent a sort of dualism; an observer and a performer, forgetting that both are part of consciousness. This happens unconsciously (!) and creates the illusion that I is like a member of the audience in a theater with thoughts appearing on the big screen, who is somehow separate from the movie of endless thoughts witnessed. This seems so natural that we might be fooled into thinking that what we (the witness) is witnessing is the whole of our consciousness.

In what sense can you focus on every passing thought? The next thought that arises in consciousness is observed by the self, and yet we forget that the act of observation is a thought in itself. Should we decide to indulge in an exercise of genuine introspection: try to become aware of the next random thought (say, car) thrown into consciousness. What we often miss, is that the immediate next thought is that we're suddenly aware of the thought that was just thrown in (car, and not a new random thought such as gorilla); the genuine next thought of our consciousness is that of the witness of the movie. After a random (or seemingly so) thought enters consciousness (the movie on the big screen), it's observed by a member of the audience (our subjective self). However, if we to truly observe our consciousness, the next thought is to become aware of the prior awareness; in essence it's as though we, the subjective self, now occupies the mind of another member of the audience, staring at the previous member who was staring at the screen. What follows is infinite recursion, each time I, the self, becomes another member of the audience staring at the previous member and so on.

True introspection thus leads to infinity of recursion, and consequently a waste of time. We cannot in any sense really meditate to live up to its goal. To think that any spontaneous truths can arise out of genuine introspection is just false. At some point, to think something new would require breaking away from the endless recursion of observing the last thought.

It's as though there are 2 (or multiple) levels of consciousness; like the movie screen and the witness. We, the subjective self, would shuttle between these 2 infinitely; the witness projected on the movie screen and being viewed in turn again. It seems impossible to find out truths about our consciousness by our subjective experience, since even paying genuinely attention to it is theoretically impossible.

The sense of self is so subjectively strong (it feels real - but to who?) and yet it's impossible to put a finger on it. If the sense of self is an illusion, the question is, who is experiencing the illusion? In the same vein, the illusion of the self is experienced by a sense of the self, which is an illusion experienced by a sense of self, and so on infinitely recursive. An illusion of the self would be self-sustaining. It would explain why we feel that I, the sense of self, is real; analogous to analyzing consciousness, when we introspect the self; the feeling of its reality is provided by another self - the one doing the introspection.

This post probably makes no sense, but the following excerpt from Richard Dawkins' TED Talk (On our Queer Universe):

We're now so used to the idea that the Earth spins -- rather than the Sun moves across the sky -- it's hard for us to realize what a shattering mental revolution that must have been. After all, it seems obvious that the Earth is large and motionless, the Sun small and mobile. But it's worth recalling Wittgenstein's remark on the subject. "Tell me," he asked a friend, "why do people always say, it was natural for man to assume that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?" His friend replied, "Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going round the Earth." Wittgenstein replied, "Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?"

And so, a thought experiment: what would it have looked like, if our self is an illusion?



Aravindh Cee said...

>>This seems so natural that we might be fooled into thinking that what we (the witness) is witnessing is the whole of our consciousness.

The essence of meditation/introspection imo is not to find a deep, complete and perfect enlightenment. We don't NEED to be aware of our whole consciousness, it is just trying to separate oneself from the thought process and try to be aware of it. Yes, the separation is illusory because both the observer and the thoughs are part of the same mind anyway, but this is not unhelpful to the ultimate aim of meditation.

>>True introspection thus leads to infinity of recursion, and consequently a waste of time.

If you mean objective truths, it definitely doesn't. What I found while meditation was that it was possible to stop the infinite recursion by admitting that thought which causes the recursion as another thought object like "car" or "gorilla". Then the mind carries on its daily business and continues to other thoughts.

My mind feels fucked now. I should have dinner.

Aravindh Cee said...

*if you mean objective truths cannot be found, it definitely cannot

ecthelion said...

I'm not saying conventional meditation is a waste of time, but was just pointing out that "true" rigorous analysis of consciousness (to do justice to the semantics of the idea) is infinite recursion.
Conventional meditation is a much less rigorous (thus less constrained) and so more fruitful attempt.

Aravindh Cee said...

Oh I misunderstood then. But I don't think anyone has ever held that rigorous introspection can be used to find hard truths.

ecthelion said...

^ I was just pointing out a semantic that I missed. I took it for granted that conventional meditation meant rigorously analyzing consciousness, true to letter, as is what people are instructed to do, except it doesn't mean that!

Trust me, becoming aware of this dualism changes the way you think of meditation LOL.